Terrance Heath

Under Sequestration, We're All Living in West, Texas

Filed By Terrance Heath | April 20, 2013 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Politics
Tags: government, industrial accident, industrial tragedy, sequester, sequestration, Texas

Do you want to know what sequestration looks like on the ground, and where the real casualties will be found? ap_texas_explosion11_wy_130418_wblog.jpgLook to West, Texas where an explosion at a fertilizer plant has claimed as many as 40 lives, injured more than 200, leveled entire neighborhoods, and driven residents of the small town from their homes while rescue workers search the wreckage and twisted metal for more dead and injured.

Most likely, the explosion itself caused by an industrial accident involving ammonium nitrate, a fertilizer, pesticide, and powerful explosive. In West, Texas ammonium nitrate combined with conservative disdain for government, yielded devastating results. If sequestration continues, we can expect to see more of the same.

Take a look at the cellphone video of the West, Texas explosion.

As The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson wrote, it looks like a horror movie. Thanks to the sequester, and its impact on the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), that horror show could be coming to an industrial plant or factory near you.

It’s widely known by now that the fertilizer plant that exploded in West, Texas, had not been inspected by OSHA since 1985. Ronald Reagan was in the White House, when the factory was fined $30 for a serious violation for storage of anhydrous ammonia (and got off without a fine for serious violations of respiratory protection standards. (The maximum fine was $1,000, but the company negotiated it down to $30.)

Not that there haven’t been problems since then. In 2006, the EPA fined the factory $2,600 for failing to update its risk management plan, and poor employee training. That same year the Texas Commission on the Environment investigated the factory, after receiving reports of a “very bad” ammonia smell.

As Bryce Covert at ThinkProgress reported, OSHA has been OSHA has long been underfunded and understaffed. Sequestration is only likely to make the situation worse, slashing $46 million from OSHA’s budget. OSHA has responded to sequestration with a hiring freeze. OSHA employees aren’t facing furloughs for now, but that still means about 1,200 fewer inspections.

DailyKos’ Laura Clawson pointed out that it would take OSHA 137 years to inspect all Texas job sites. That figure comes from a chart, published as part of the AFL-CIO’s report The State of Workers’ Health and Safety 2012, which shows the number of years it would take OSHA to inspect all jobsites in each state. (South Dakota is the worse, at 243 years, but Texas just makes the top 10.)

The AFL-CIO report and a 2010 report by the Center for Progressive Reform, Workers at Risk, detail the regulatory dysfunction and lack of resources that have plagued OSHA. The AFL-CIO report stated that the OSHA lacks sufficient funding to protect workers, effectively leaving 8.1 million workers without OSHA coverage, due to a shortage of inspectors. In 2011, for example, there were 2,178 state and federal inspectors covering about 8 million workplaces. That’s one inspector for every 58,945 workers, compared to benchmark of one inspector for every 10,000 workers recommended by the International Labor Organization. That’s a ratio twice as thin as it was when OSHA started.

Under-staffing at OSHA, since the mid , has meant ”hollow” threats of inspection and less accountability for employers, diminished protections for workers, and lax to nonexistent enforcement. According to the 2010 Center for Progressive Reform report, OSHA has operated on a “shoestring” budget for years. The agency’s budget climbed steadily in the 1970s, but a backlash from big business and the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush put an end to that.

Under Reagan and GHW Bush OSHA’s budget was first slashed, and then held it even with inflation. Bill Clinton boosted the agencies budget somewhat, but OSHA’s publication of ergonomic standards incited another business backlash. The whittling away at OSHA’s budget picked up pace again under George W. Bush. including cuts to the agencies enforcement budget and eliminating enforcement jobs. With Republicans enjoying virtual one-party rule in Washington, OSHA’s budget was cut every year from 2001 to 2008, and the agency adopted a “laissez-faire” attitude, according to the Center for Public Integrity. The Washington Post reported that under Bush OSHA became “mired in inaction.”

The result is a legacy of unregulation common to several health-protection agencies under Bush: From 2001 to the end of 2007, OSHA officials issued 86 percent fewer rules or regulations termed economically significant by the Office of Management and Budget than their counterparts did during a similar period in President Bill Clinton’s tenure, according to White House lists.

White House officials have dismissed such tallies, emphasizing in recent regulatory overviews that their “objective is quality, not quantity,” and that heavy restrictions on corporations harm economic performance. During Bush’s presidency, they said in a September report, average annual regulatory costs were kept 24 percent lower than during the previous two decades. OSHA says it has issued many rules of lesser consequence that nonetheless clarified industry responsibilities.

But this record has been controversial among occupational health experts and career OSHA staff.

“The legacy of the Bush administration has been one of dismal inaction,” said Robert Harrison, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco and chairman of the occupational health section of the American Public Health Association. It has been “like turning a ketchup bottle upside down, banging the bottom of the container, and nothing comes out. You shake and shake and nothing comes out,” Harrison said.

More than two dozen current and former senior career officials further said in interviews that the agency’s strategic choices were frequently made without input from its experienced hands. Political appointees “shut us out,” a longtime senior career official said.

There was a brief moment of hope for change with Barack Obama’s victory in 2008, but the 2010 midterm elections mean problems for OSHA and other regulatory agencies. Returning to Washington, flush with victory, Republicans made OSHA a target in putting a stop to what they called “job killing regulations,” proposing to cut the agency’s budget by 20 percent in 2011 -- a $99 million reduction. The Obama administration has proposed increases in OSHA’s budget, but sequestration means that Republicans will get at least half the cuts they wanted in OSHA’s budget.

No wonder it would take OSHA 137 years to inspect all the job sites in Texas. Actually, under sequestration it might take even longer. Back in 2008, I blogged about a report that it would take the FDA 1,900 years to inspect every foreign food plant responsible what ends up on our grocery store shelves and in our shopping carts, for all the same reasons it would take OSHA 137 years to inspect job sites in Texas: budget cuts and deregulation, which leads to regulatory agencies adopting “laissez-faire” attitudes and becoming “mired in inaction.”

In both cases, it’s no mystery what happened to agencies charged with protecting workers and consumers. Conservatives disdain government, and when they’re in power they push for deregulation and less funding, and shrink these agencies until they’re ineffective. In other words, Republicans tell American’s government doesn’t work, when they really believe it shouldn’t work, and then they get elected and make damn sure that it can’t work.

Anti-government conservatism turned West, Texas, into a kind of Randian paradise, and with a little ammonium nitrate, it helped turn the small town into a deadly inferno.

West might be the latest failure of our commitment to provide the resources to protect our communities and our environment but there is no shortage of similar examples. The BP well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, which continues to destroy sea life, was a product of lax enforcement, infrequent inspection caused by staffing shortages, and an intermingling of personnel between the regulated industry and the federal oversight agency. Generations from now the Gulf of Mexico will still be suffering and people may find it hard to understand what we allowed to happen in order to hold down our tax burden and to let industry create jobs and find energy without government meddling.

How damned many times do we have to see these images and fail to connect cause and effect? Americans continue to elect and tolerate politicians that tell them everything is fine and we don’t need to invest in infrastructure and safety and there is too much regulation. There is no reason we can’t have businesses that are both profitable and safe. But we have to be willing to spend the money to fund the agencies that provide the oversight. That’s not government meddling; that’s common sense. Elected leadership does not hesitate to spend your tax dollars on fear driven industries like the TSA or defense contractors, but a few inspectors or laws to keep a nursing home away from an ammonium nitrate fertilizer plant is considered too much government?

And now we have to endure those same politicians who are quick with the budget cut running to the site of the tragedy to claim empathy and understanding. How dare they? Why do we never demand accountability until people are dead? The owner of the plant was quoted on television as saying, “This kind of thing just isn’t supposed to happen here.” It isn’t supposed to happen anywhere.

We just let it.

Thanks to sequestration, we may all be living in West, Texas, and sooner than we think.

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